Every year, on the days leading to the Mexican Day of the Dead on November 1 and 2, families make altars for their deceased loved ones as a way to honour them. This tradition is the result of the fusion of Pre-Hispanic and European worldviews. In Pre-Hispanic cultures, death was viewed as one more step in the cyclical continuity of life and death. The belief was that the dead came back to visit the living and thus, the objects placed in an altar are offerings to welcome them, purify their souls and guide them back into the afterlife. Some of these objects are: water, salt, candles, bread, fruit, sugar skulls, marigold flowers, religious images, a photograph of the deceased, and his or her favourite food and drinks. The dead absorb the scent of the food and leave behind the physical elements for their families to eat. In addition, colourful paper banners decorate the altar. Making an altar is a way to keep the bond between the living and the dead alive and strong. Furthermore, it is also a vehicle to build a bond between the new generations and the family members they did not get to meet in person.
The loss of a loved one is an intensely personal experience shaped by several factors, most saliently: the circumstances of the person’s death (e.g. anticipated, sudden); the relationship to the deceased (e.g. spouse, parent, son, daughter); the quality of this relationship (e.g. a smooth, loving relationship, a problematic one); the personality of the bereaved (e.g. his or her ability to cope with tragedy); and his or her religious and cultural beliefs on death. In recent years, a new item has expanded this list: the technological habits of both the living and the dead.
How exactly do people’s technological habits shape the experience of losing someone? When people lose their loved ones, they maintain a bond with them. A bond does not end just because one party is no longer physically present. It is transformed. And it is precisely this bond what is undergoing a series of changes due to the technological habits of people.
Before the advent of social networks and the digital world, when people died, they did not leave behind a counter presence –at least not a visible one in the secular world. But as people’s online presence increases, they leave behind a digital being. This exerts a new influence in the way people relate to the dead.
Communicating To The Dead
Social networks have impacted the way we communicate with one another, and it has also impacted how we experience death. The digital world has originated virtual forms of grieving, in which the bereaved write messages to their lost loved ones and collectively mourn. In an article published in Psychology Today titled “All That Remains”, George Bonanno, a clinical psychologist and grief expert at Columbia University, sustains that the collective grief that takes place on Facebook is “a lot like the way people used to honour the dead and grieve, which is part of a large community.”
The article asserts that communicating with the deceased is very common for the bereaved. This communication can take many forms: in writing, thoughts, speech. Jocelyn DeGroot, a communication researcher at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, points out that when people talk to the deceased they “know that their loved one is dead, so they’re talking to what’s called the ‘inner representation’ of the deceased. The living think about how they believe the deceased would respond, and they give themselves feedback.”
DeGroot published one of the first studies on the use of virtual memorials for relating to the dead. In her article “Maintaining Relational Continuity with the Deceased on Facebook”, which was published in 2012 in the OMEGA – Journal of Death and Dying, she explains how she studied the role of direct communication to the deceased. DeGroot analysed 1668 messages posted on 20 Facebook memorial groups dedicated to deceased youngsters between the ages of 13 and 20. Her research showed that writing messages to the lost loved ones –as if they could read them– serves two functions: sensemaking and continuing bonds with the deceased.
Sensemaking: When people are grieving they actively seek to understand why someone died in order to eventually accept the loss. DeGroot found that as part of this quest, grieving people wrote posts in which they “experienced shock, envisioned the deceased checking his or her Facebook from heaven, posted original and non-original prose, referred to spirituality, and questioned the death.”
Continuing bonds: Additionally, grieving individuals try to make sense of who they are in a new existence without their loved ones. In order to do so, they try to renegotiate their identities by maintaining bonds with the person they lost. DeGroot identified that the bereaved “attempted to maintain bonds with the deceased by using emotional expressions, posting memories of the deceased, noting the deceased’s presence, providing updates, indicating appreciation for the deceased, making promises or requests, and mentioning an eventual reunion.”
Communicating with the ‘inner representation’ of the deceased is a one-way practice. In this scenario, the grieving individuals exert a type of control over the dead’s responses, and they acknowledge that their loved ones are dead. But what happens when the dead respond back?
Communicating With The Dead
Artificial intelligence (AI) and neural networks are introducing a new attribute to the relationship the living maintain with the deceased: external feedback. In other words, technology now enables two-way communication between the living and the dead. With the help of the aforementioned technologies the opening conversation of this article could take place directly between a grandson and his deceased grandfather. Furthermore, the latter would not only provide answers about his favourite food and drinks, but rather about complex subject matters.
There are two salient examples of AI-powered solutions to create an ‘outer representation’ of the deceased: memorial bots and mindclones.
Eugenia Kuyda, the CEO of Luka –an AI company that created a messenger app for people and chatbots– created a memorial bot of her deceased friend Roman Mazurenko. The article “Speak, Memory” in The Verge recounts Kuyda’s endeavour, who rebuilt her best friend in order to get one more chance to speak with him. Nonetheless, she recognizes that in the process of bringing him back as a bot, she struggled with whether or not she was doing the right thing.
Luka’s engineers fed 8,000 lines of text messages Mazurenko had sent to her and 10 other people –including his parents– to a neural network that could emulate his personality. Messages deemed too personal were edited out. On May 2016, his memorial bot was made available for anyone using the Luka app.
The response from Mazurenko’s friends and family was mostly positive, with a few exceptions of friends who refused to interact with the bot. In fact, after analysing the conversations that had taken place with Mazurenko’s ‘outer representation’, it turned out the primary purpose had been to send messages to him, not to receive messages from him. People wrote messages about love or told him things they never told him before –a similar phenomenon to the posts DeGroot found on Facebook memorial groups.
The second example is mindclones, which are still at a very early stage; however, they offer a further glimpse into how people could interact with the deceased in the future. Mindclones are self-aware digital beings, able to think, reason, remember, and feel. To create them, a living person’s memories, thoughts and feelings are uploaded into a computer to generate a digital version of his or her consciousness.
Martine Rothblatt is trailblazing the controversial creation of these “second selves”. In 2010 she created Bina48, an early demonstration of a mindclone modelled after her living wife. Multiple technologies were used: video interview transcripts, laser scanning life mask technology, face recognition, artificial intelligence and voice recognition. Bina48 is a robotic head that can engage in conversations, and eventually serve as an eternal representation of Rothblatt’s wife when her biological self dies. Rothblatt assesses that mindclones are 10-20 years away. However, she foresees they will be on-screen avatars, and not physical robots.
Memorial bots and mindclones offer a kind of eternal life and the possibility to interact with future generations. But is this desirable? When the deceased are granted an ‘outer representation’ that is autonomous, is the effect therapeutic? Or does it tarnish the memory of the deceased? As the behaviour of their digital representations might cause frustration in the living, because digital personas only mimic the original person. They are not the person.
In a way, memorial bots and mindclones are a means to an end: coping with loss. It is still early to grasp the full extent of the effects that communicating with the dead can have in the bereaved in particular, and in mankind’s relationship with death in general. However, the boundary between coping with loss and provoking denial seems dangerously fluid.
The Resonance Of New Grieving Practices
If a foreigner with no previous knowledge of the Day of the Death festivities went to Mexico to witness the altars, he might feel puzzled by the tradition. But just because this practice might seem absurd, morbid or jarring in the eyes of an outsider, it does not mean that it does not bring relief to the persons who practice it. Similarly, when people grieve online or converse with memorial bots, no matter how foreign the concept might seem to some, people are finding solace in such practices.
It is undeniable that the effects and risks of these developments must be extensively assessed, and the developers of such technological solutions must acknowledge the big ethical responsibility they bare and design technology accordingly. But the fact remains that these practices are presently resonating with some people. And even if they are a very small number –especially memorial bots users– as digital natives grow older and the technology improves, these emerging ways of making sense of death and continuing bonds with the deceased might become normalized. Without a doubt, we are witnessing the reconfiguration of the ties between the living and the dead. Just how radical it will be is still uncertain.
Image via Flickr